COOL-ing Down Monsanto | Civil Eats

COOL-ing Down Monsanto

I have to hand it to Monsanto. A company representative on Twitter recently engaged me in a dialog about whether labeling products containing GMO food would do any harm, and, if so, to whom.

While the dialog felt like another cut-and-paste debate between me and previously published Monsanto paraphernalia, it offered just enough information about how Monsanto defends against mandatory GMO labeling. Clearly, anyone informed about consumer sentiments regarding GMO food knows that such labeling would devastate Monsanto and other GM seed companies’ bottom line. Which explains the vigorous, even suffocating effort by Monsanto to control the conversation.

The specific question I asked on Twitter was:  Dear Monsanto, What would be the harm in labeling GMO foods, regardless of whether same as non-GMO food?

I didn’t send the tweet to a specific person, so anyone was welcome to jump in. Thankfully, @Mica_MonsantoCo (Twitter name of Mica Veihman, Monsanto Public Affairs) decided to take a crack at answering my question. Some of her responses included:

  • “U.S. labeling laws are based on health & safety, not choice.”
  • “Harm is having mandated labeling of something that doesn’t have a scientific reason for it.”
  • “I don’t want food companies passing along cost of labeling to me for something they say has no bearing on my health or safety.”
  • “No it [organic] doesn’t have a scientific reason, that’s why organic is a marketing program.”
  • “Harm is making people think there is health or safety problem with their food.”
  • “We do not support a government-mandated label which is reserved for health or safety issues.”

Do you see a pattern? Visit the Monsanto link Mica provided during our chat and you will see the theme continued:

Some might ask what the harm would be in requiring the labeling of products. U.S. labeling laws are based on health and safety. Requiring labeling for ingredients that don’t pose a health issue would undermine both our labeling laws and consumer confidence. Ensuring that such labeling is accurate would also put a huge burden on regulatory agencies.

Again and again, Monsanto stresses that mandatory labeling for foods containing GMOs would undermine the U.S. labeling system. At first, it seemed like Monsanto might have a point. After all, “Certified Organic” is not mandatory, nor is “Non-GMO,” since neither relates to health or safety,  at least not from the industrial food system’s perspective.

Then I remembered the recently launched USDA Country of Origin Label (COOL) program, mandated by Congress through the 2002 and 2008 Farm Bills.

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The 2002 and 2008 Farm Bills amended the Agricultural Marketing Act of 1946 to require retailers to notify their customers of the country of origin of muscle cut and ground meats including beef, veal, lamb, pork, chicken, and goat meat; wild and farm-raised fish and shellfish; perishable agricultural commodities (fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables); peanut, pecans, and macadamia nuts; and ginseng.

Did Congress implement this law because of health and safety concerns? No. It did so to assist U.S. food producers in establishing competitive advantage based on the assumption that U.S. consumers, if given country of origin information, would buy U.S. products over imported ones. No mention of health. No mention of safety. Nor have I read anywhere how COOL has undermined our country’s labeling laws or consumer confidence.

Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, summed COOL up nicely: “I strongly support Country of Origin Labeling—it’s a critical step toward providing consumers with additional information about the origin of their food.

Did you catch that? The U.S. Secretary of Agriculture highlighted consumer choice as the reason for a mandatory food labeling program. Given that 95 percent of U.S. consumers surveyed want GMO labeling, incidentally the same percentage that favor country of origin labeling, doesn’t it seem like leaders in Washington should step up for consumer choice again?

A less important, but still interesting question is how Monsanto can make supposedly definitive statements over and over again that  are factually incorrect and misleading?

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Rob Smart is a food entrepreneur focusing on regional food systems and consumer retail experiences. He blogs on alternative food systems at Every Kitchen Table and micro-blogs on Twitter as Jambutter. Read more >

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  1. As a Canadian producer that has been dramatically affected by COOL I would like to lend some thoughts. I find it interesting that COOL is now being sold to people as a marketing tactic and is about food awareness. COOL has always been and will always be nothing more than a non-tariff trade barrier which was pushed through the system based on supposed health concerns by anti trade groups like R-Calf. Don't try and sell COOL as some great way for the US to be honest with the consumer. COOL is trade distorting and is being challenged at WTO by Canada and Mexico.
  2. Also, in defense of mandatory labeling, while GMO crops might not, in specific, differ from their non-GMO counterparts in health and safety qualities, GMO farming practices and the potential spread of patented GMO crops are of great significance to the health and safety of the American agriculture system and ecosystem in general, and I for one would like to be notified so as not to participate in GMO crop systems.
  3. Erica
    If the leaders in Washington are not willing to step up for consumer choice (those of us that are educated know about the "revolving door"), then it is up to citizens to spread awareness to citizens. It's truly something that Monsanto thinks people are this stupid. If we cannot get GMO-labeling, the best way to hit Monsanto where it hurts is to continue to push the agenda through blogs, support local farmers markets, etc. I live in California, where we are at a particular advantage because of the year-round growing season. If Monsanto and its chums in Washington won't give us a choice, we'll educate ourselves. It will certainly take time, but supporting our local farmers is a start. Thank you for publishing this.
  4. “I don’t want food companies passing along cost of labeling to me for something they say has no bearing on my health or safety.”

    How expensive is it to label foods? Is this really a significant cost?
  5. An interesting labeling parallel was brought to my attention today - tobacco.

    I am willing to bet the tobacco industry had an attitude much like the GMO industry does today when cigarettes were not labeled as hazardous. Just consider that in 1944 cigarette production was at 300 billion cigarettes per year. It wasn’t until Big Tobacco had to start defending its product from a health perspective, which started 21 years later in 1965 when warning labels were mandated by the US Congress, that big money was spent convincing the public that cigarettes were cool, refreshing or whatever. It still amazes me that the FDA allowed such advertising of a known killer.

    Which brings me to the importance of not discounting peoples’ concerns of GMO foods. The industry is still way too young to know whether there are serious risks, although a number of sources are already making such claims based on the available history and related research. What if they are right? What if people are slowly getting sick due to unknown side effects associated with specific GM ingredients? Is it worth letting something that over 90 percent of Americans want labeled to remain a mystery?

    I for one can’t stand by waiting for the downside, which if left unchecked will create massive health and social issues for a large percentage of Americans.

    Can you?
  6. Sinclair
    COOL is very important to consumers, and I AWLAYS look for country of origin on anything packaged that I purchase. Consumers have a right to know from whence their food came, and we have a right to know if our food has GMO ingredients. I personally do not believe GMOs to be safe, and I want to use my consumer dollars to send the message that I do NOT support GMO food/crops. I cannot effectively do this if I do not know which to boycott. I will not knowingly eat GMO food, nor will I feed it to my family. Monsanto wants to hide behind this false shield of reasoning because it knows what consumers want and that the profits would shrink with shrinking sales of GMO foods. Isn't a "free market economy" supposed to be consumer driven? Oh, except we do not truly have a free market economy...

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